Most historians concur that Ulysses S. Grant’s parents were a little eccentric.
Grant and His Parents
Jesse Root Grant (1794-1873), the father, was born in Pennsylvania and transplanted to Ohio, where he married and raised a family. He was self-educated and hard working with shrewd business acumen, a trait not inherited by Ulysses, his oldest son. Coupled with a hard working ethic, was a doggedness of character: he pressed hard to obtain his goals. This trait was inherited by his oldest son. But Jesse Grant, despite being a successful businessman and decent citizen, was generally perceived by those who knew him, to be a bossy blowhard and know-it-all. His neighbors liked him well enough – but not that well.
Hannah Simpson Grant, his wife, was the polar opposite of Jesse: reticent to the point of silent. Her oldest son inherited some of that reticence. Hannah Grant was also a deeply religious woman, devoted to her Bible, her housework, and perhaps just slightly lower on the list, her family.
While Ulysses and his five siblings always got on well, and there was plenty of food and the necessities of childhood, there was little parental affection. After grace was said, the dinner table was a silent one. Conversation was not encouraged or permitted, unless Jesse had something to say.
But if that environment was out of the ordinary, none of the Grant children knew it.
Mrs. Grant and Her Parents
The family dynamics of Julia Dent, Grant’s wife, was totally opposite, with the one exception of her father, who, in his own way, was just as opinionated as Jesse Grant.
Julia was the fourth child and eldest daughter of seven little Dents. Her father, Frederick Dent (1786-1873), was originally from Maryland, emigrated to St. Louis early in the 19th century, and once settled, acquired the honorary title of “Colonel,” which he used thereafter.
Julia was “The Colonel’s” favorite child; she inherited his plain features. But Ellen Wrenshall Dent was genuinely pleasant with a sweet disposition that soothed troubled waters easily. Julia inherited her mother’s “niceness.”
When Lt. Ulysses Grant first met the Dents, they welcomed him with open arms (he was their son’s West Point roommate), and he, in turn, was overwhelmed by the affectionate and rollicking dinner table conversation. It was a family dynamic he had never experienced before. He would later come to realize that Col. Dent had many of the overbearing qualities of his own father.
A Separation of In-Laws
When the relationship between Ulysses and Julia quickly progressed to a romance-leading-to-marriage, Col. Dent’s attitude began to change. Julia had just turned eighteen – much too young to marry. Lt. Grant, at twenty-one, had slim prospects, and army officers did not earn much. Dent wanted better for his favorite daughter. Julia and her beloved decided to keep their intentions secret, a situation that lasted for four years.
Following the Mexican War, when now-Captain Grant at a mature twenty-six came to claim his bride, twenty-two year old Julia was old enough. Col. Dent could not refuse.
But the Senior Grants, while aware of Ulysses’ romantic plans, were also aware that his beloved’s family were slave holders. The Grants, if not formally declared abolitionists, deplored slavery, and were unhappy with their son’s choice, a woman they had yet to meet. They showed no interest in meeting her family.
They did not attend the wedding in St. Louis. Family lore suggests that since Ulysses and Julia were headed to his new assignment in Detroit, they planned to visit the senior Grants en route. Family lore also suggests that by this time, Ulysses was well aware of his parents’ eccentricities. He was far less concerned whether or not they liked his beloved; he was far more concerned whether she liked them.
She didn’t. But Julia was a genuinely nice lady, and whenever she was in the company of her in-laws, she was properly deferential, polite and daughterly. They were nice enough to her. But Julia was always glad to leave, and Jesse Grant was just as glad to say goodbye.
The In-Laws Meet – Sort of.
Son-in-law and now Great General and POTUS Grant had had a rocky relationship with Col. Dent for most of his marriage, partly because of his lackluster years after resigning his military commission, but mostly about slavery and secession. Col. Dent was not only a slave owner, but a proud secessionist and Confederate. Grant was not, and never would be. But the older man was now a widower past eighty. He came to live with them in the White House, and his overbearing personality was felt by everyone.
Grant’s parents were certainly proud of their son, but true to form, Hannah Grant, once having said, “So now you are a big man,” and returned to her sewing, never changed. She did not attend the inauguration, nor visit the White House. Jesse Grant, bursting with smug pride, couldn’t wait to go! And, to no one’s surprise, the two grandfathers were oil and water: both insufferable, unbending and generally obnoxious. Col. Dent, was still an unrepentant Confederate who loved baiting presidential guests, including his daughter’s father-in law. Jesse Grant’s opinion of his son’s father-in-law was generally unprintable, particularly when Grandpop Dent consistently referred to Grandpop Grant as “the old gentleman.” Jesse scoffed, reminding Dent that “The Colonel” was eight years his senior.
According to the President’s son, an adolescent Jesse Root Grant II, (who penned his memoirs some fifty years later), the two “grandpops” could barely stand being in the same room. Since Col. Dent lived at the White House, the senior Grant stayed in hotels when he was in town. But Jesse-the-grandson also remembered with great amusement how much he loved egging both of his old grandfathers into an argument, when they were coerced to sit together at the family table.
Grant, Jesse Root – In the Days of my Father, General Grant – Harper & Bros. 1925
McFeely, William S. – Grant: A Biography – W.W. Norton, 1981
White, Ronald C – American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant – Random House, 2016